Facts and figures are flying as debate heats up over a proposed new state law to discourage illegal immigration.
Advocates say illegal immigrants could be costing Arizona taxpayers up to $1 billion a year in state and local services.
Critics say the costs are much lower and claim Mexican immigrants actually benefit government at all levels by paying nearly $600 million in sales and income taxes last year.
The numbers vary wildly because researchers are trying to make projections for a segment of the population that is difficult to track. And in some cases, the statistics tossed around surpass the limits of credibility.
"I believe any research project will lose validity because up to a certain point you will have assumptions," said Hector Gutierrez, the project team leader for a June 2003 study on Mexico-Arizona economic relationships. "After that, you are guessing."
There's a renewed effort to assess the impact of Mexican immigration as a group called Protect Arizona NOW seeks a November 2004 vote on an initiative intended to discourage illegal border crossings.
The new law would require state and local officials to verify a person's residency status before providing "public benefits," to see valid identification before allowing people to vote and to report any suspected cases of illegal immigration to federal authorities.
Initiative supporters said they believe illegal immigrants are straining public resources as tax revenue has slumped, forcing government officials to choose between deep cuts to existing programs or raising tax rates. The supporters claim many immigrants take the lowest-paying jobs, send the money back to Mexico, and rely on government assistance to survive.
Rep. Randy Graf, R-Green Valley, said the cost of illegal immigration to state and local governments reaches $1 billion a year. But he admitted that's basically a guess because so many pieces are unknown.
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa and chairman of the Arizona Legislature's House Appropriations Committee, said he won't even try to estimate the impact to Arizona until after a committee he has created researches the issue with the state Auditor General's Office.
"How do you know what the real cost is?" Pearce said. "Nobody asks the hard questions because it's just not politically correct to do that. We turn a blind eye."
Critics of the initiative point to a more positive image of immigration profiled in the study by Gutierrez and his team assembled by the Thunderbird Mexican Association, a group of students, alumni and professors at the Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management in Glendale.
Gutierrez, a legal immigrant from Mexico City, said the researchers spent about six months combing through public documents and analyses of various think tanks for a comprehensive look at the economic relationship between Arizona and Mexico.
The study claims immigrants to Arizona annually receive a combined $250 million in welfare and another $31 million in unpaid emergency medical care. But at the same time, immigrants paid $559.7 million in state and federal taxes in 2002, based on a combined purchasing power of $3.9 billion, the study concludes.
Rep. Ben Miranda, D-Phoenix, said those numbers only begin to illustrate how Mexican immigrants, both legal and illegal, are critical to many businesses that depend on relatively cheap labor to keep costs of goods and services from rising.
"This debate over what the undocumented does and what he provides for the state of Arizona is long overdue," Miranda said. "What (initiative supporters) are going to do, if they are successful with their mission, is destroy the state of Arizona and its economy."
But the Thunderbird study includes some shaky assumptions. Gutierrez said the estimate of $250 million in welfare costs was based on research by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates better immigration enforcement.
Gutierrez acknowledged that figure assumes only legal immigrants receive welfare such as food stamps and Medicaid insurance, because that's what is required by federal and state law.
"According to the rules, according to the information out there, this is not happening," Gutierrez said. "The value of this project is exactly the objectivity of the world out there. If the world does not run as it should, well, that's a different story."
Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center of Immigration Studies, said that assumption is unrealistic. Even the U.S. Census Bureau acknowledges in its research that some illegal immigrants receive welfare, in many cases because they have U.S.-born children eligible under the law.
For example, the census bureau estimates from 2001 show about 4,400 households of illegal immigrants have someone enrolled in Arizona's version of Medicaid, Camarota said. "To a large extent, the health insurance crisis in Arizona is being driven by U.S. immigration policy," Camarota said.
During a phone interview with the Tribune, Camarota used information complied from census figures to estimate the total amount of welfare going to Arizona illegal immigrants annually at $380 million.
Initiative supporters said that demonstrates why the state should take more aggressive steps to deny immigrants access to public services. But Camarota said he doesn't believe that strategy will work.
"Those incentives are probably modest. That's not why they came," Camarota said. "It may have the effect of keeping people here who might have otherwise gone home. I think that happens and it matters. But that's not the driving force behind immigration to the United States. It's mainly people looking for better jobs.
"The frustration that the people in Arizona feel at the situation, however satisfying it may be to direct it at trying to deny benefits to illegals, ought to be directed . . . at people who don't want to control illegal immigration. Once they're in, the state is kind of stuck."
BY THE NUMBERS
The speculative nature of tracking people who have migrated to Arizona without U.S. permission leads to plenty of guessing about the statistics. Some examples:
Illegal immigrants living in Arizona in 2000:
-- 283,000, as estimated by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Bureau
-- 200,000, as estimated by the Migration Policy Center, based on 2000 Census information
Costs of immigration:
-- $31 million annually in unpaid emergency hospital care for illegal immigrants, as estimated by Thunderbird Mexican Association and the governor's office.
-- $72 million to imprison criminals without legal residency, as estimated by the governor's office.
-- $250 million in welfare, as estimated by the Thunderbird Mexican Association, assumes no illegal immigrants participate.
-- $380 million in welfare to illegal immigrants, as estimated by the Center of Immigration Studies.
-- $1 billion for all state and local services for illegal immigrants, as estimated by state Rep. Randy Graf, R-Green Valley
Taxes paid by immigrants:
-- $599 million in 2002, as estimated by Thunderbird Mexican Association; includes both legal and illegal immigrants.